"Forty years ago, having passed my 30th birthday, and imbued with all the hubris that only the young can assume," Bill Brock wrote in a 2002 forward to an autobiography written by his longtime assistant, Olive Hunt, "I decided to run for Congress."
That decision — and his upset victory in the fall general election — would change politics in Chattanooga, in Tennessee and, some would say, across the South.
When Brock, who died Thursday at the age of 90, was elected in 1962, he became the first Republican congressman from the state's 3rd Congressional District in 42 years and only the second in 68 years.
Tennessee, at the time, was a solid Democratic state, with two congressmen in the stalwart Republican northeast corner of the state the only exceptions.
What led to today's solid Republican state, with a Republican governor, two U.S. senators, seven of nine members of Congress, and super majorities in the state Senate and state House, was a gradual process. But Brock often has been credited with kicking the door open.
Two things happened that year that led to the Lookout Mountain native's narrow, 2,000-vote victory, one over which he had no control and one over which he and his campaign did.
The first was the Democratic primary loss by incumbent Rep. J.B. Frazier to Wilkes T. Thrasher Jr., 30 years his junior. In 1962, the conservative Frazier, 71, was serving his seventh term in the House and was seen by some Democrats as not in step with the younger, more liberal Kennedy presidential administration.
The second came about when Brock's campaign manager, his younger brother, Pat, and his political director brother-in-law, Wesley, confronted him one day at lunch, according to the forward in the Hunt book.
"Much as we care about you," he said they told him, "we have to admit, you are the worst public speaker we have ever heard."
Brock said he agreed, and the resulting strategy was to recruit 3,000-4,000 volunteers who could help him and who could get him into more intimate settings of homes, churches, workplaces, civic clubs, neighborhoods and communities, where his liability would not be as glaring.
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The Kennedy administration backed Thrasher and even sent him to Trinidad as part of the U.S. delegation to help celebrate that country's independence. But Brock asked voters, "Are we going to have a representative of the people in Tennessee in Congress or are we going to have a representative of the [Kennedy] administration."
Brock was painted as an "arch conservative," but his background, his young family and his reasoned views didn't seem out of the mainline to district voters. And he was the beneficiary of disgruntled conservative Frazier voters, who came into his camp instead of voting for the more liberal Thrasher. In the end, he won six of 11 counties in the district, including decisively in Hamilton County.
"We won," he wrote. "We won against all odds. No one who participated will forget those heady days when a bunch of average folks, mostly very young citizens, decided that 'politics' was arcane only to those who were afraid to engage in it."
A U.S. Senate win by Howard Baker followed in 1966 (first Tennessee Republican elected to that office since Reconstruction) and then a win of the governorship in 1970 by Winfield Dunn (first Republican elected to that office since 1920 and only the third since 1880).
Brock, meanwhile, served four terms in the House, then ran for Senate in 1970, ousting the venerable Albert Gore Sr., father of environmental activist and former Vice President Al Gore. He would only serve one term there but still had work to do for the party he represented.
After he lost his Senate re-election race in 1976, he was given the thankless post of chairman of the Republican National Committee in the immediate post Watergate years and the election of Democratic President Jimmy Carter.
Conservative activist and best-selling author William Bennett credited Brock more than any party leader with reorganizing the GOP during the post-Watergate period. Only six years after the 1974 mid-term election in which Republicans lost four senators and 49 House members, not only did Republican Ronald Reagan win the presidency, but Republicans picked up 12 Senate seats and 34 House members.
In recognition of the work Brock did, Reagan named him U.S. trade representative and later secretary of labor. In the position, according to the Tennessee Encyclopedia, he moderated some of his conservative stances and supported worker retraining programs, parental leave and forms of affirmative action. He left that position late in 1987 to manage U.S. Sen. Bob Dole's unsuccessful bid for the 1988 Republican presidential nomination.
By today's standards, the late lawmaker and political fixer would likely find himself to the left of most of his party. No matter. When it was needed, he was an important cog as a self-described conservative in the party's growth in Chattanooga, across Tennessee and in the South.
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